Red Key Tavern owner and Indianapolis’s favorite curmudgeon, Russel Settle, died Sunday, April 4. He celebrated his 59th anniversary of owning the tavern on Friday.
He was 92.
The Red Key is a favorite watering hole for neighborhood folks and an eclectic group of creative people and cool kids. Russ was famous for his rules — no feet on the furniture or chairs in the aisle, cash only, hang up your coat, use your “indoor voice” and don’t swear. And the most honored rule: Russ is always right! Not that you ever doubted it.
He was a WWII Army Air Corp (pre-Air Force days) bomber crewman. His plane was shot down and he and the crew were on the lam for a month before they were captured. They were in a German war camp for fourteen months before they were liberated.
The Red Key is often categorized as a hole-in-the-wall or dive bar which Russ took great offence to, but it’s hard to hang a neat and tidy label on the tavern. The jukebox is full of 45s featuring boogie-woogie, Pasty Cline and Frank Sinatra. The furniture is original and has only been re-covered a few times since Russ’s ownership — not tipping back on your chair or dragging the tables pays off! The linoleum floor has a path worn to the waitress station, juke box and restrooms. The menu hasn’t changed much either, featuring cheeseburgers like your mom used to make, tenderloins, Braunschweiger (if you have to ask what is you won’t like it), BLTs and Dollie’s famous potato salad. Most nights the waitress is also the cook.
Everyone I know has a Red Key story and usually an emotional bond with the bar.
Countless relationships have stared, proposals accepted, marriages celebrated and people have been eulogized at the Red Key. Who “gets” the Red Key is a hot topic in many divorces and break-ups. Parents bring their children for their first (official) 21st birthday drink before launching them in to the wilds of Broad Ripple Avenue. There are generations of families who have called the Red Key their bar.
Not only was Russ famous for his straight-talk but his iron-clad memory. I got to see it firsthand many times. Someone would walk in a year after their last trip and Russ would remind them of a jacket they’d left on their last visit. He remembered who belonged to who’s family and birthdays and anniversaries. The first time he met me I was with my friend Aaron, which Russ pointed out is almost Nora spelled backwards. My first few visits I’d could tell that was how he was remembering my name. I loved it most of all when he’d growl “Spitznogle.”
I had the great honor of working with Russ at the 52nd and College Avenue tavern. When he asked me to work there it felt like an appointment from the governor. All those years of sitting quietly reading in the corner booth paid off.
Russ helped me get though some rough times with his “shake it off Spitznogle” advice. When CATH coffeehouse closed I was able to work there full-time which paid the rent and helped me re-gain my identity. And Russ was a staunch ally. One day I walked in for my shift to realize the only customers were a ex-boyfriend and his date. Russ was hard of hearing at that point and talked loudly. He proceeded to tell me why I shouldn't be wigged-out and it wasn't worth it; well within earshot of the date gone horribly awry.
My favorite times where the few times that it was only the two of us in the bar. We’d talk about the history of the bar, his family, a little bit about the war and gossip about customers. One memorable night he pulled out his harmonica and played for me.
Russel was very protective of his customers especially the women. One night a man sat next to me that I was not fond of. Russ set the man’s beer down at the other end of the bar. The guy told Russ he wanted to sit next to me. Russ told him no, that if he wanted a drink he could go to the other end.
Russ had a great and slightly bawdy sense of humor. I’m notoriously prudish so he enjoyed teasing me. One year I dressed as Russel for Halloween. I slicked back and grayed my hair, wore dime store glasses, a plaid shirt, dark polyester pants and suspenders. I accessorized with a comb, a pack of cigarettes and a toy gun. I tried to use as many Russ-ims as possible. Russ loved when l I dropped the toy gun in the toilet when going to the bathroom. He teased me about that until the end.
He could recite poems from memory and often had one that was perfect for the occasion. On Halloween he would recite James Whitcomb Riley's, "Little Orphant Annie." I never realized how creepy the poem was until I heard Russel recite it.
Russ and the Red Key crew are the first people that I share news with — good or bad. I have the tradition of reading anything that I have in print spread out on a table at the Red Key. I came into work after my first NUVO article was printed to find it cut out and hanging behind the bar and the Barfly comix about me is still hanging there. New jobs, promotions, relationships and family have all been discussed over that bar.
I am thankful to Russel for letting me work part-time all of these years. It has kept a roof over my head and allowed me the freedom to find a great job
I walked Russel to his car on Saturday. When we were in the sunlight I asked him I he would wait while I grabbed my camera. I fully expected him to have driven off in the minute it took to me run back in a grab it but he was still standing there and smiled when I snapped the photo, muttering "Spitznogle and that camera" as he got in his car.
Rest in peace Russel. You’re already missed.